The life of a food influencer seems pretty fun. Before the pandemic, there plenty of free meals and mail swag, and even now some bloggers are paid hundreds to thousands of dollars to simply post a photo endorsement. And watching those likes roll in on a picture can feel intoxicating. But beyond the bright ring lights, some influencers are finding that the Insta-hustle is taking a toll on their mental health.
Carly Lipkin started her Instagram account, Talk Foodie To Me, in 2015 after living in New York for a couple of years. The word “influencer” wasn’t even a thing yet, and for Lipkin, Instagram was just a creative outlet. Living in New York provided her with opportunities to try new food, and she’d always been interested in photography.
After popular food account The Infatuation reposted one of her pictures, she decided to start an Instagram account dedicated to just food, but didn’t have any big plans for it. “It was definitely nothing special. It was all the places I was trying in New York, and whenever something came out and was really pretty, I would take a picture of it,” Lipkin told HuffPost.
In Atlanta, Nichole Wolfe of ATL Adventurer had a similar experience. She started her account in 2015 as a way to highlight the city’s burgeoning dining scene when she moved there after graduate school.
“I don’t think I thought much about it at all, what I was actually going to become, because I didn’t have any expectations,” Wolfe said. “It was more for me to share what I really loved about Atlanta and finally living in a real city with real cultural progression going on.”
“I think it has a cultural stigma to it where when I go out to eat, taking pictures. I’m trying to create content on the go and I’ve been looked at and made fun of. For the older generations, it’s like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And it just makes me feel like an oddball.”
– food influencer Nichole Wolfe
It didn’t take long for the invitations to restaurants and events to pour in. “But I think the real turning point [in becoming an influencer] is the first time that somebody said, ‘I want to pay you for doing this,’ which to me was shocking. I can’t believe somebody would want to pay me for just sharing the things that I enjoy doing,” Wolfe told HuffPost. Eventually it became the new normal and suddenly her nights and weekends became dedicated to events or visiting restaurants. “It starts to feel more like a job,” Wolfe said.
For Lipkin, the side hustle of being a food influencer took a mental and physical toll, compounded by the fact that her day job was doing social media for a restaurant group. “My life at all times was pretty much consumed with Instagram and social media, and it all just came to not be as enjoyable anymore because I didn’t have a break,” she said.
It didn’t help that there were cliques within the food influencing world. “The competition of who gets invited to what event, who has what contacts and what PR firms, who takes who to be their plus-ones, and who could get the most comments and likes on photos [was overwhelming],” she said. Going to the same event with a gaggle of other influencers meant posting the same pictures as everyone else who attended, but she couldn’t help but wonder, “Why did they get a thousand likes, and I only got 500 and we have the same follower count?”
Not only was she exhausted, but her self-worth took a hit, too. It turns out that she’s not alone in this. A recent study confirms what many of us already know: Excessive Instagram usage can be detrimental to self-worth. You don’t have to be an influencer to find that relatable.
Similarly, Wolfe found that the joy of experiencing new restaurants began to wear off after growing her account into a side hustle. When she started out, she was going to four or five places on a Saturday — not because she wanted to, but because her account grew and so did the demands that came along with it.
“It became kind of this unexpected, almost a nuisance in some ways, where I work all week, I’m living my life, but then I’m having to shoot campaigns on the weekends or at night or in the morning, submitting content to brands, worrying about photographers and how I look, because a lot of times now I’m in my content,” Wolfe said.
There’s also an isolation factor. “I think it has a cultural stigma to it where when I go out to eat, taking pictures, I’m trying to create content on the go and I’ve been looked at and made fun of. For the older generations, it’s like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And it just makes me feel like an oddball,” she said. “It definitely can feel lonely because all my friends might be hanging out doing something and I’m like, ‘Well, I have to go shoot content, I have a deadline.’ So it feels like you’re not a normal 20-something or you’re constantly working toward something.”
Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, Wolfe has gone through different phases as she’s adjusted to the new way of life. “The first couple of weeks I felt compelled to jump in and help promote restaurants as much as I can. I personally donated to the Giving Kitchen and did as much as I could financially,” she said. As time went on, though, she needed a mental break. Adjusting to working from home for her full-time job while living alone took a toll.
It’s hard to cut back completely, though, when she’s not only making money but also getting messages from her followers to whom she’s a resource. “So it feels like it’s a sense of responsibility to the people that I’ve met in Atlanta who look to me as that,” she said.
When Lipkin left her social media job in May 2018, she decided it was time to say goodbye to Talk Foodie’s 53,000 followers. “When I left that job, it was almost very freeing in the sense that I don’t have to do this anymore. I don’t need to feel this intrinsic need to keep posting,” she said. She shared a vulnerable, open post and hasn’t posted on the account since (she does, however, still have a personal account). When asked how people responded to her heartfelt post, she said, “It was a really positive reaction. It was exactly what I hoped for.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Lipkin took to Talk Foodie To Me’s Instagram stories to highlight ways to support New York businesses during this dark time. She was unsure if she should, but she felt an overwhelming urge to help out in some way. But she isn’t back. “While I do have a platform, the burden of supporting the NYC restaurant scene is not mine to carry alone and mentally, knowing that I would not be able to move the marker as much as I’d like to, I’ve realized that I am back to being a customer and that’s A-OK with me,” Lipkin said.
Wolfe also shared an emotional post at the beginning of the year telling her followers that changes were coming. But she’s not ready to walk away quite yet, even though the landscape has changed. One thing that gives her pause during the pandemic is how aggressive people’s comments have been. After Georgia governor Brian Kemp allowed restaurants to reopen, Wolfe, who is typically quiet about her political views on Instagram, shared a post urging her followers to stay home and continue supporting restaurants throughout takeout and delivery in accordance with CDC guidelines. This prompted Kemp supporters to leave nasty comments and DMs on Wolfe’s account. On another post, she shared that an open air rooftop amusement park would be reopening with strict limitations in place, which prompted someone to leave a (now deleted) comment. “I’ve had to block people because they’ve become so aggressive. It’s not my job to tell people what to do, and if people are going to attack me, I don’t need to share,” she said. She feels that she has a responsibility to use her platform to keep her followers in the loop during the pandemic, but for now she’s stepping back.
Musing on the mental welfare of influencers, Lipkin said, “It’s crazy to think there’s so many young kids these days and younger generations using Instagram and posting and have these crazy followings at such a young age. They’re too young to realize what we’ve realized, that getting 100 or 500 likes on a photo doesn’t make you a better or more successful individual.”